Thursday, October 19, 2006

Theory About Theories

To live a human life is to be engrossed in the ocean of theories. For example, right now you are engaged in this theory of reading someone's blog post. Later on, you may be dealing with another theory, the one that states that you are drinking a cup of coffee. And so on.

The trouble is, we take all these theories for granted. We take any theoretical proposition, such as that the earth is flat, or that the earth is round, or that the light consists of waves of energy, or that it consists of a stream of particles, or both, or neither, etc., and then believe it to be the absolute truth. Despite the fact that most of us have been forewarned, either by our religious and spiritual teacher, or by our scientists, that the nature of the evidence is at best very suspect, we still continue to disregard these advices.

So why do theories keep surfacing? The mind incessantly weaves patterns of activities, which are very deeply based on our intentions, seated at the core of our consciousness. It is a gross mistake to take those patterns as representing something real, something substantial. Better to recognize them as theories.

This is why Socrates exclaimed that unexamined life is not worth living. Basically, as we go down our chosen path in life, it is our responsibility not to leave any stone unturned.

What is a Theory?

Yes, but what exactly is a theory? According to Karl Popper, one of the leading thinkers in the 20th century philosophy, a theory is a falsifiable hypothesis.

For example, Newton's theoretical attempts at explaining how the reality works are valid theories, because they are falsifiable -- there is a conceivable set of circumstances that could falsify his claims (this actually did happen with Einstein's introduction of the Theory of Relativity, which completely falsifies Newton's view of the universe).

On the other hand, Freud's hypothesis that lead to the formulation of Psychoanalysis does not qualify as being a proper theory, because it is not falsifiable. In other words, one cannot imagine a set of circumstances that could disprove Freud's claims that a person's psyche is completely determined by the events that occurred during that person's early childhood.

What is a Theory About Theories?

A 'theory about theories' is simply just another word for 'Buddhist practice'. Our practice is nothing else but one continuous awareness about theories.

Through cultivating this awareness that each and every pattern emanating from our minds could be viewed as a theory, and is thus falsifiable, we cultivate pure and complete liberation. Only a person who is constantly aware of the theories surrounding each and every activity around us, can taste the unsurpassed sweetness of total liberation.

This culture of 'theory about theories' is the ultimate knowledge about the impossibility of knowing anything. As such, it is utterly liberating. Nothing ever gets spared from its penetrating gaze.

For example, I have undergone, through my intense Buddhist practice, the experience of enlightenment. I can pinpoint the exact place in space and time where this all encompassing and obliterating experience occurred. I have indeed experienced that state which people refer to as satori, or nirvana, the everlasting and the most profound peace.

But all along I'm perfectly aware that this experience is just a theory. I don't view it as being something real, something substantial. It is just another in the series of experiences that need to be examined. It is just another of the theories that need to be subsumed in our practice of 'theories about theories'.

Why is this practice so powerful, so as to surpass even the highest achievements of the divine celestial beings? The reason is simple -- 'theory about theories' has the power to short-circuit any attempts at the runaway escalation of the meta levels. Simply put, even though it is possible to have a theory about theories, it would be impossible to have a theory about a theory about theories, and so on.

Any such attempt immediately collapses to the one and only 'theory about theories'.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

All Events are Created Equal

Human beings are born into the world of duality. Is/isn't, up/down, left/right, before/after. Also, agreeable/disagreeable. And so on.

Because of that, the events that arise in our lives get to be treated in the same dualistic way. Meaning, each event gets evaluated according to some set of criteria. Thus, this event may be perceived as being desirable, that event as being undesirable, and so on. This process of evaluation never ends.

Buddhists and Events

If a person engages in the Buddhist practice, and if he perseveres, there comes a time when the events in that person's life begin to gain certain uniformity. It is quite difficult to explain what this uniformity is about, or how does it feel like, but the thing is that the ups and downs from the non-Buddhist life now tend to smooth out a bit.

There comes a point where you realize that all events are created equal. If you then persevere and keep going, you will get to the point where you can almost plainly see that it's how everything is. No event is better or more precious than any other event. And vice versa -- no event is to be avoided, to be shoved under the rug.

Events, the way we perceive them, are what reality is. It is our life. Buddhist practitioners are peculiar because they have given up coping with life. They realize that they are the life, and that it would be therefore impossible to cope with something that you already are.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Fear of the Known

"I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones." -John Cage
Fear is the first cousin of ignorance. In Buddhism, ignorance (avidya) is the Primus Movens of all human suffering. To abandon suffering one must abandon ignorance. And to abandon ignorance, one must go through its first cousin -- fear -- and figure out how to deal with it (i.e. fear).

But the question is: fear of what? The knee-jerk common wisdom answer is: fear of the unknown. People seem to be afraid of the unknown.

Now, if we stop and think about it, is that really how things are? Are we really afraid of the unknown? I mean, the unknown is just that -- unknown. Not being known, or knowable, what is there to be afraid of?

On the other hand, there are countless known things that we have pretty solid reasons to be afraid of. Such as the known possibility of getting very sick, getting injured, and of course, the fear of a very well known thing -- death and dying.

That's why John Cage said that he is afraid of the old ideas. He is afraid of the things that are already known. And he is afraid of them because he knows how horrible those known things are.

Something new and still unknown could actually be good. No need to be afraid of it yet, until we see what's it actually shaping up to be.

So realizing this, Buddhist practitioners work on dealing with the known fears. One of the known fears is that you may lose a much loved someone, or something. How are you going to cope with that fear?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

To Take It or Not to Take It Personally?

Buddhist practice is solely concerned with human condition. And the most prevalent characteristic of human condition is that we tend to take events that happen to us very personally.

This is the cause for many a suffering. Being extremely sensitive personally is not a fun way to go through life.

So what do Buddhist practitioners do to get out of that hole? They basically have a choice of two courses of action:
  1. Don't take things that concern them personally
  2. Take those things personally, but in addition, take everything else that occurs personally as well
In truth, both the above courses of action boil down to the same thing. If a practitioner choses the 'don't take it personally' path, that will liberate him from the bondage of being confined inside the prison of his body and mind. But if another practitioner takes another recommended course of action and starts taking everything personally, he will also be completely liberated from the prison. By taking onto himself all the other people's travails, he will become fully aware of the self, an will consequently forget all about the self.

Thus, he will be freed.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Spiritual Pharmacology

It would be ludicrous to expect any person to voluntarily sign his or her own death warrant. And yet, that's what true Buddhist practice expects from us.

Of course, no one is ever going to do such a thing, and consequently we have this Buddhist practice that is put in place in order to slowly 'cook us' and prepare us for signing the much dreaded death warrant. In that respect, the Buddhist practice must be a bit sneaky, so that it can slowly and imperceptibly creep up on us and deliver the final blow when we least expect it.


According to the Buddhist way of thinking, everything is subject to cycles. When it comes to issues concerning the human predicament, these cycles appear to be determined by the particular quality of mind each individual brings into the game. For example, one observes people who are subjected to extremely short cycles. Such people can typically be found among acute addicts, such as gamblers or drug and alcohol addicts, violence addicts, etc.

Upon observing the behavior of such short-cycle bound people, one cannot help but be forced to conclude that such people are extremely selfish. For example, a serious gambler, when finding himself in a pickle, would think nothing of selling his own family's future just to have another go at it. In his mind, life is absolutely not worth living unless his selfish desire to go for a ride (meaning, to bet his money on a particular horse, for example) gets to be instantly fulfilled.

Similar observations and conclusions can be made about the drug addicts, for example. A typical crack-head or a heroin addict sees nothing, knows nothing when it comes to getting the next fix. The cycles that govern his existence are extremely short, and the selfishness resulting from such short cycles is extremely pronounced. It would be difficult to find more selfish people than among those who are ensnared by the extremely short and tight cycles.

Moving away from such extreme cases, we find regular, everyday folk who appear free from being enslaved from such short cycles. Instead of being governed by the cycles that keep rearing their ugly head every 20 minutes or so, common workaday folk are more enslaved by the longer cycles that could usually be described as 'from paycheck to paycheck'. It should not come as a big surprise to learn that most people today live their lives from paycheck to paycheck, consequently finding themselves ensnared by the weekly or biweekly cycles. Most of these people do not and cannot see anything beyond this one or two weeks horizon. And consequently, their mindset is also quite narrow.

Not nearly as narrow as the mindset of a serious gambler or a crack-head, of course, but nevertheless quite narrow. A person who cannot see beyond the two week milestone cannot possibly be expected to be very broad-minded.

Broadening our horizons, we may find another group of people, the business people or proprietors, whose cycles tend to stretch beyond the two week horizon. Typically, business people view their world in terms of quarters (which coincide with the quarterly financial reports). Such businesses live and die based on their performance tied to a particular quarter.

If we then leave the narrow-minded world of addicts, paycheck winners and business people, we may encounter people whose cycles get to be longer thanks to tying their horizons to the cycles found in nature. This mostly pertains to the natural seasons. These seasons govern the lives of farmers, fishermen, hunters, gatherers, etc. These people have somewhat less selfish outlook on life, thanks to their somewhat broader view on life's cycles.

Finally, it is possible to get in touch with people who have managed to leave even the world of seasonal cycles, and to arrive at the outlook which encompasses their entire lifetime. These are the people who have withdrawn from everyday affairs to devote their lives to serving some supernatural force, such as god etc. They typically belong to some community of priesthood or something similar, and are serving a very specific role in the overall structure of the society.

These religious devotees gaze at a much longer, wider cycle than most of their fellow humans. The cycle they are focused on encompasses their entire lifetime. Thus, their mindset is much broader than the mindset of an average person, and their level of selfishness is usually much lesser than that of an average person. They view their entire life as a journey which will culminate with their death, at which point their actions and deeds will get evaluated by some higher, supernatural being, and they will get rewarded/punished accordingly. This faith influences the outlook these people may have on the cycles of existence.

All of the above examples deal with cycles of existence that vary in length. The length of these cycles depend on the horizon any given person is engaged in. The narrower the horizon, the shorter the cycle, and consequently the harsher the selfishness.

However, regardless of the respective length of the cycle one is engaged in, there is a limit to that cycle. And that limit is determined by the longevity of that person's identity. At the minimum, it is driven by the immediate selfish impulse, which the person engaged in the cycle cannot perceive in any other way but only as something of utmost urgency and importance. At the maximum, it cannot exceed that person's physical existence.

A notable exception to this worldview is the Buddhist view, which helps stretch those cycles even beyond the boundaries of the individual lifespan.

The Maker and the Making

According to the Buddhist teaching, it is not possible to have an action without an agent who would execute such an action. And conversely, it would not be possible to have an actor, or an agent, who doesn't do anything. Action and actor performing it define each other and cannot appear independently, in a similar way that we cannot have 'left' without having 'right' at the same time, nor can we have 'up' without having 'down' at the same time.

Furthermore, in the Buddhist world there are no coincidences. Unlike the scientific picture of the world, which treats pretty much every occurrence as a mere coincidence until it can be demonstrated that such occurrence complies with some elegant underlying theory, in the Buddhist world every occurrence happens for a very good reason. There are no capricious, whimsical events, nor are there any events that would be a handiwork of some supernatural being (such as god).

How do things happen according to the Buddhist teaching, then? Simply put, things are governed by the Law of Causality. Anything that happens must bear fruit. There is no possibility of an 'orphaned' event, that is to say, in the Buddhist world every event results from some other event. And furthermore, every event will result in some other event. So, the Buddhist Law of Causality portrays the world as being one enormous Matrix.

But where is the Primary Mover, then? Where is the event that put all this matrix in motion? In the Buddhist teaching, there isn't such a thing as a beginning. In other words, the world is beginningless.

The most important outcome of this teaching is its ethical, or moral component. Since nothing happens without a cause, it is impossible to wiggle out of this chain of cause-and-effect. Any deed, performed by an actor (or, a doer), must, according to this teaching, bear fruit. But the crucial teaching is that this fruit cannot be tasted by anyone else by the original doer. Thus, there simply is nowhere to hide in the Buddhist world. According to the Buddha's teaching, it would be impossible to cheat the system and to duck the responsibility.

Another important aspect of this teaching is the fact that it is impossible for someone else to taste or experience the fruits of our actions. This then guarantees the absolute fairness of such Buddhist universe, where everyone reaps whatever they sow.

The Buddhist Cycles

Buddhist practitioners live in the Buddhist universe, as described earlier. They know that anything that happens in their lives is caused by something they did previously. They also know that everything they do right now is going to bear fruit, and that fruit is going to be experienced by them, and no one else.

Knowing this, they realize that, once they die, they inevitably leave behind the legacy of their own deeds. This legacy lives on, as the Buddha taught that there cannot be an 'orphaned' event, the one that will not bear fruit.

The only problem, then, is -- who is going to taste the fruit of such acts, once the original doer disappears (that is, dies)?

And the only meaningful answer to this question is that the original doer will continue to kick around, and will be brought by the Law of Causality to taste the fruits of his or her previous actions.

This being so, it becomes evident that the Buddhist cycles have the capacity to stretch beyond the limits of an individual lifetime. As such, these cycles bring with them an unprecedented broadening of the horizons. The trifle selfishness and the small-mindedness of the everyday person, who can barely see beyond his/her paycheck, let alone beyond his lifetime, now gets slowly replaced by the open-mindedness of the typical Buddhist practitioner. The broadened horizons help appease the innate fears that make most people completely incapacitated.

Friday, February 10, 2006


I've been practicing the Buddhist way for more than 20 years now. The more I manage to penetrate the recondite teaching of the Buddha, the more I'm beginning to realize that there is only one thing, only one factor it all resolves to.

Yes, despite the claims of many practitioners that it cannot be resolved, there is the magic word, there is the holy grail of the Buddhist practice. It all boils down to this -- intention.

Intention is what changes everything. Anything that is happening right now is the result of our previous intentions. And the things that are going to happen to us sometime in the future will be the direct outcome of our present intentions.

Once you realize this, you know that you need to work with intentions. Like, when you get up in the morning, you need to ask yourself about your intentions. What do I intend to do today? But don't limit yourself to the surface stuff, like I intend to have a shower, eat breakfast, go to work, etc. Dig a bit deeper. Ask yourself: do I intend to feel good? Do I intend to feel inspired?

And, if your answer is 'yes' (as I'm pretty sure will be the case most of the time), ask yourself additionally how do you intend to accomplish that.

This how is the vital question. It points back to your practice. If you want to make yourself feel good, you will soon realize that you cannot do it if you make others miserable. So, your clear course of action is to make those around you feel good about themselves. This is where the true Zen practice starts.

The deepest, truest intention of Buddhist practitioners is to experience Buddhahood. And the only way to do that is to work with one's intentions. If your intentions are selfish, you will not be able to get anywhere near Buddhahood, that's for sure.

So I believe that the most important thing for us is to make an effort to focus on our intentions. When I approach a situation, what are my deepest, truest intentions? If it turns out that my intentions are to exploit the situation in order to aggrandize my own puny little imaginary ego, then I cannot expect to get anywhere near to experiencing even the tiniest glimpse of Buddhahood.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Stop Thinking and Start Knowing

As a Buddhist practitioner, if you put all of your heart into your practice, there will come a time when you'll experience a breakthrough. So, what is this breakthrough, you may be asking. There is no simple way to explain it, and perhaps it will be good enough to say that it's the point when you stop thinking and start knowing.

Yes, but what does it mean to stop thinking and start knowing? We all know how does it feel to keep thinking, but we're not so sure how does it feel to start knowing. Have we already started knowing? If not, are we getting close to starting to know? How do we know that we have started knowing?

And what is it that we will start knowing? Like, right now you may think that you know how to live, how to deal with various situations. So, is this the type of knowing we can expect a breakthrough experience is going to bring? What else is there to learn?

Obviously,we're not talking about the so-called scientific knowledge. Knowing that the universe may be 15 billion years old is pretty inconsequential here on earth. Pretty much nothing is gained by knowing that, and nothing would be lost by not knowing that fact. There are many other facts that are quite irrelevant to our well being.

But because Buddhist practice is strictly concerned with the human condition, its sole focus is on human well being. So this 'knowing' that we're talking about is the knowing of how to lead a life of well being.

Curiously, seems like in order to know how to lead a life of well being, we need to stop thinking. Thinking seems to be in the way of that vital knowledge.

Basically, what we're talking about here is the type of knowledge that parents have when raising their children. They don't need to think in order to get to the point of loving their children. They love their children effortlessly, and thus, not needing to think, they instantly know what to do. They know how to provide well being for their children.

Buddhists practice that same discipline, only they train themselves to view the entire world as their own children. Once you get closer to that stage, you'll discover that you'll need less thinking, less strategising, and you'll spontaneously approach the land of effortless knowing.

michael said,

on January 22nd, 2006 at 4:26 pm

Similarly, I’ve noticed that my practice (while still in it’s beginning stages) has lead me to “stop thinking” and “start acting”.

When I’m stumped with a slew of problems, I’ve often found myself pacing around thinking about them and how to reach resolution.

Since I’ve become more mindful, I’ve started acting more rather than just thinking about it. said,

on January 26th, 2006 at 6:11 pm

Useless knowledge is no longer interest me. For example, I am stopping reading news online, watching tv, and reading useless stuff. Instead, I spend more time reading buddhist book and with my family.

Alex said,

on January 26th, 2006 at 6:30 pm wrote:

Useless knowledge is no longer interest me. For example, I am stopping reading news online, watching tv, and reading useless stuff. Instead, I spend more time reading buddhist book and with my family.

You bring up a very important point — what is knowledge? I would argue that news, TV, factoids and stuff doesn’t qualify as knowledge. Mere data can be processed, massaged, and shaped into something more legible: information.

But having information is not the same as having knowledge. Information needs to be massaged and distilled before one can reach the stage of knowing. said,

on January 27th, 2006 at 3:49 pm

And I can tell you, what a difference!

When I seat down to meditate and it’s like a video tape recorder, it plays back everything. If you have less things to play back to, the better your meditation session become.

Now I wish I can renounciated more but it’s very hard. I need more time! Someone once said that all of the Buddhist teaching is boiling down to just one word, “Renounciation”.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Desire and Acceptance

My friend Neil asked me the following question:
Hi Alex,

I've had a number of conversations with my roommate recently about desire vs. acceptance. Desire is what leads people to create things in life, but also leads to un-wholesome choices and actions rooted in attachment to self. Acceptance is sort of the flip side of this, where instead of choosing based on interpretations of good and bad, we accept. My understanding of the dharma is that desires are to be extinguished and we should strive to accept. But if that were the case, and we obeyed none of our desires, nothing would get created in the world. Bodhisattvas would not seek to free others, we would never take the time to learn the dharma, no one would paint beautiful portraits, create a more efficient medical system etc.

Do we distinguish between good and bad desires in Buddhism and if so what is the rationale?
OK, that's a very fundamental question, and I think it deserves careful examination.

Like you've already mentioned above, "Desire is what leads people to create things in life, but also leads to un-wholesome choices and actions rooted in attachment to self". It is this erroneous conviction -- that there is such a thing as myself that is somehow separate from everything else -- that leads us to attach to it and to consequently generate all kinds of desires aimed at protecting and furthering the hallucinatory 'self'.

So it should be fairly easy to see that in Buddhism we can clearly identify bad desires. Any desires that spring from the erroneous concepts, such as the concept of a separate self, cannot be deemed good. The rationale behind this distinction lies in the fact that erroneous concepts inevitably lead to suffering.

As you already know, Buddhism is only concerned with human condition. According to the Buddha's teaching, the prevalent factor underlying human condition is suffering. It is impossible to conceive of any arrangement whatsoever that could possibly eliminate this condition. One can place all one's hope in concepts such as heaven, nothingness, etc., but upon closer inspection all these concepts turn out to be unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, Buddhist teaching insists that having a desire to extinguish suffering is not a bad desire. As a matter of fact, being a Buddhist practitioner myself, I would argue that all those things you've enumerated above (painting beautiful portraits, building more efficient medical systems, learning the Dharma etc.) are the direct manifestation of the desire to extinguish suffering.

But therein lies the rub -- suffering is a direct outcome of attachment which leads to desires. Yet here we have a strong desire to abolish suffering. Isn't that also an attachment that will inevitably lead to suffering? The situation seems paradoxical: in order to dissolve suffering, we need to have a desire to do so, which implies further suffering!

How to find a way out of this conundrum? Buddhist teaching and practice is all about exactly this problem. The Buddha showed us the way out of this sticky predicament 2,500 years ago.

I'd like you to think about the Buddhist way out of this for a while. Let me know your findings, and then we can look into it a bit deeper.

Be well,


Old Comments

michael said,

on January 6th, 2006 at 3:26 am

Off of the top of my head, it seems that the Buddha taugh that the ultimate goal is to alleviate suffering, thus making that the only desire that is allowable.

Alex said,

on January 6th, 2006 at 8:48 pm

michael wrote:

Off of the top of my head, it seems that the Buddha taught that the ultimate goal is to alleviate suffering, thus making that the only desire that is allowable.

Yes, that is correct. However, this is stuff that pertains to the entry-level Buddhism. What Neil was asking is more advanced questions. Like, if the ultimate goal is not to have any goals, then it doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Buddhist practice focuses on resolving exactly such kinds of questions.

michael said,

on January 13th, 2006 at 5:02 am

Well, I’m curious. What is the proper answer?

Alex said,

on January 16th, 2006 at 5:33 am

michael said:

Well, I’m curious. What is the proper answer?

Luckily, and at the same time unfortunately, the answer boils down one word — shunyata. I say luckily, because having a crystal clear single word supplied as an answer is much better than a long winded narrative explaining the finer points of an answer. But the word itself is very recondite, and that’s why I’ve said that it’s also unfortunate that we can offer a single word as a proper answer.

Michael, if you don’t know what shunyata is, then we’ve got to talk:-)

Let me know if you’d need more detailed explanation of this answer.



lynda said,

on January 19th, 2006 at 1:09 pm

My understanding of the question is as follows. I believe that grasping is responsible for our suffering. Desire itself is not the problem, it is how it is manifested in our thoughts and behaviours. So desire to understand the dharma for example is fine as long as we dont let it turn into grasping for something we want to have and to hold on to. If we strive to get rid of desires then we have lost the plot and we will create suffering for ourselves.

Alex said,

on January 21st, 2006 at 12:22 am

lynda wrote:

My understanding of the question is as follows. I believe that grasping is responsible for our suffering. Desire itself is not the problem, it is how it is manifested in our thoughts and behaviours. So desire to understand the dharma for example is fine as long as we dont let it turn into grasping for something we want to have and to hold on to. If we strive to get rid of desires then we have lost the plot and we will create suffering for ourselves.

This is a very astute observation. It is indeed very important to nail the correct dianosis before attempting the cure (as all of you who are watching the TV show “House” know quite well).

But the real issue in the Buddhist practice is how do we deal with the diagnosis? If we conclude that grasping is actually at the root of our suffering, we would naturally be very keen on eradicating the root cause. But right there the problem arises — by wanting to get rid of grasping, are we not grasping at non-grasping? Are we not simply amplifying the grasping itself?

lynda said,

on January 23rd, 2006 at 8:09 pm

Grasping to get something and trying to rid yourself of something are two sides of the same coin, both are forms of attachment. I believe that attachment is the cause of suffering and that is what the practice of mindfulness is helping me to learn more about. My attachment to this and that is still there but in time I may be able to learn how to stay fully aware. But maybe not, I travel in hope with good companions also on the same journey, thank you for your comments and travel well